Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A Year in the Drops

Where I left this monologue hanging over six months ago was becoming known to my riding buddies as “fun-hater summer.”  I sure can’t deny that.  Training rides for LOTOJA (cringe) took a much different shape than any I’ve know in the time since my racing days in Athens, GA.  First of all they were, yes, training rides.  Secondly they involved drop bars, skinny bald tires, and (gasp) spandex.  Fun-hater indeed.  I reluctantly pulled my old team kits out of their stash to find their stretchiness having been defeated by the dry Arizona climate.  No less, they’d have to do.  Wearing something less than once a year doesn’t exactly warrant a new purchase.

Summer training was in full swing by the time I headed north to Grand Canyon on the Arizona Trail Association’s annual youth trip.  To take advantage of what I considered to be short days on the bike I decided to make it as difficult on myself as possible and ride the road bike on trail.  When I say road bike, what I mean, of course is...cross bike, gravel bike, super commuter....whatever you’ll call them these days.  In my neck of the woods most of the “roads” you’d actually want to ride a bicycle on are far from being paved.  Most of the paved roads are two lane highways with no shoulder featuring baffled tourist drivers trying to figure out why their text messaging won’t work going no less than 80 miles per hour.  Seems more like a death trap, but in fun-hater summer we’d be riding plenty of these roads in due time.  None-the-less I haven’t owned a road bike in the purist sense of the word since even before I buried that spandex in a drawer.  After the Grand Canyon run I donned a pair of slicks and nearly all the riding for the next three months was on those undesirable roads described above. 

Despite my gripes we actually have three descent road rides here, all of which Kristin and I would become familiar with.  First of all is the Sunset Crater-Wupatki loop road.  Most commonly this ride is done by locals as a full moon downhill shuttle ride on beach cruisers.  The area road bike guide suggests riding the length of this road south to north and looping back via Highway 89 uphill.  I prefer to do this ride as an out and back....minimal traffic, maximal scenery.  Its actually a divine piece of pavement.

Secondly we have the Lake Mary Road lollipop around Mormon Lake, sometimes the largest natural lake in Arizona.  Its retention of water is entirely dependent on rain and snow fall and the body of water can vary between absolutely nothing and several square miles of surface area.  Nonetheless its always a great place to spot wildlife and the road out and back from Flagstaff is senic and has a descent shoulder.  Climbing all our local hills on the way, we managed to stretch this lollipop to 90 miles doorstep to doorstep, with a stop for cocktails at a pool party near the end making it all worth it.

Kristin and I (remember this whole double century thing was HER idea, HER family legacy) became most familiar with after work Snowbowl laps.  This sub-two hour round trip from the house climbs 2000 feet in about 14 miles, most of the vertical being in the last seven miles.  Zip down.  Repeat.  The fitness gains from this climb are compounded with the elevational advantage, the hight point is 9000 feet above sea level.

Even through this we were behind on our training....and we knew it.  I was discouraged, and hoping not to be discouraging for it.  I felt it, not that there was much I could do about it.  The training guide for LOTOJA says to ride “centuries,” yes,, in the plural throughout the summer, and to work up to 150 miles by early August.  We had yet to ride A SINGLE century, and our frequency for getting out was weekends plus maybe a short day mid week.  She was working long, long days for the Forest Service in one of their busiest local summers in memory, I was trying to keep up on shop projects after full 40 hour weeks of carpentry.  Eventually we drew up a training calendar which we barely stuck to.  In that, we had committed to riding to our friends’ wedding in Prescott.  South of Prescott actually, bonus miles.  Their frequent travels said that door to door via the interstate the trip was exactly 100 miles.

We would not be taking the interstate.  Actually the hope was to take dirt roads and make it a two day ride, but time and necessity forced the pavement card once again.  We needed the road miles and we needed the long single day much more.  It wouldn’t be an ideal ride in most circumstances, but leaving on a Friday at first light, we opted for the 89A route through incredible Oak Creek Canyon and Sedona.  Oak Creek Canyon is probably the most idyllic roads for cycling in Northern Arizona....right up until the cars come packed with tourists obliviously slowing stopping and photographing everything with no regard for the fact that they’re obstructing a federal highway with a guardrail on one or both sides nearly the entire length of it, often with vegetation growing past the rail and into the center of the lane.  Now going downhill on a bicycle in the morning, before the tourists show up, a cycler with minimal effort can maintain a speed near to that of the cars traveling the same direction.  Uphill is just a bad idea, though I do see those that dare attempt this ride every year.  We escaped the narrow roads of the canyon just as the horde of tourist vehicles began to pour into the canyon from both Flagstaff and Sedona.

We stopped for lunch in Cottonwood, the highway between hardly worth a comment save for the miles ticked off, and started our climb to Jerome, road narrow, shared with more cars than we would have liked.  Reaching Jerome and pedaling through its narrow streets was the closest I’ve ever felt to riding through the Alps in le Tour; the town is built clinging to the side of Mingus mountain and the street passing through is so narrow here that it seems to be an afterthought to the buildings brushing by us with no room to spare.  We pedaled quickly through the town for fear dodging cars and once through it resumed the grueling mountain climb surmounting a total length of twelve miles with nearly 3,300 feet of vertical.  Average grade: 5%.  The downhill reward ended all too quickly and with that we came into the unforgiving land of diesel giants driven by depraved, forgotten, out of work white men with heavy with heavy, swollen red feet of elephants uncontrollably surging downward with every passing bicycler.  We’d reached Prescott Valley....the only place in the state with an anglo population so homogeneous, and with golf resorts so prolific, and with international border issues bearing absolutely no effect, that it was deemed pure enough to host the campaign rants of the Donald himself.  Before long we’d be stopping in at one of these resorts ourselves, to stink out the place in search of soda and candy, before going on to endure some more elephant footed carbon rich exhaust in this desert grassland.  This torture came in the name of training, but I’m pretty convinced that our survival was dumb luck.  We reached the wedding party and were greeted with cheers and cold drinks.  Unfortunately, we were too tired to remember much of the weekend....maybe it was the diesel.


We’d registered for the Mens/Womens open in the cyclo-sportif category meaning we weren’t in it for the race, but for the personal accomplishment.  This, conveniently, gave us the very last start time of the day.  We’d been notified that the finish line would not be counting riders who crossed after 8:30 PM.  Our start time was 7:35 AM, giving us just shy of 13 hours to cover 207 miles, requiring a mandatory average speed of 16 miles per hour with no pee breaks.  Now we’re pretty sure that this average would have been the maximum average speed of any of our many months of weekender training rides, and today we’d only have to do this all day, or rather the whole day given to us by the formalities.  The route thoroughly covers Napoleon Dynamite country before ascending into the Caribou National Forest of eastern Idaho and dropping you into a windstorm in Wyoming.  LOgan TO JAckson....LOTOJA....get it?

From the gate we found ourselves in the slipstream of the finest category in the race.  The co-ed effort was driven by The Lactic Acid Cycling Club of Boise, Idaho; a group of the classiest die-hard roadies whose smooth cadence would pull us into the first rest stop 30 miles out in no time.  With only a slight lapse of our support crew holding up the line for the plastic bathrooms, we were off again, though this time in scattered company.  We’d missed the group we started with, and found ourselves trying to organize amongst stragglers.  Friendly folk, but none could match the climbing legs of the Flagstaff Goats when the road pointed up.  We found our climbing rhythm alone on that first hill, just as we had all summer long and just as we would with all the others.  Coming off the first pass in an energy saving tuck we faced a shock.  Three, then four, then five unshapely, older cyclists passed us on the down.  As we regained a rolling flat we figured it best not to waste our energy, so we tucked in behind them.  This day being Kristin’s first experience with pack riding and the draft, she got to witness now, what not-so-smooth riders looked like: yo-yos bouncing uncomfortably on their saddles, constantly alternating between standing and sitting to find that momentary stretch relief.  I was disgusted, but our position at the moment didn’t seem to warrant the converse to the situation: us pulling them.  We followed along, tucked in in a headwind until a railroad bridge pointed sharply upward and we Goats seized the opportunity to leave our heard of sheep.

After that we rode alone.  We’d seen the groups of corporate office relay teams come and go, and the better riders from our own start were well ahead, leaving only the people destined not to finish between us and the finish.  When you start dead last in a field of 1700 riders, you’re only going to pass people en route to the finish, not the other way around, and on a perfect day for LOTOJA standards, this means you have to pass something like 800 people.  That’s right, only 60% of the people who signed up for this ridiculous event even finish....and that’s on a good year!  The solo ride through the remote hills of eastern Idaho were some of my favorite miles of the summer.  On this day being alone was unexpected, but in this area its the attraction.  We were approaching the halfway point and the road pointed upward again.  This time an unending string of bicycle silhouettes sat atop it until it curved out of sight.  And one by one those silhouettes took human form in their suffering under the relentless September sun before disappearing into our short Goat memory.  One by one they took form and one by one they dropped off without an answer.  Kristin had picked up a tail.  A younger fella in a college jersey.  He just couldn’t let another girl drop him so he clung to her without a sound, grasping for his dignity as he panted in follow.  He said nothing, but stayed around through the next flat allowing she and I to take turns at the lead while he sat on.  I guess I can’t complain too much, its the same thing we’d done earlier, though only to much larger groups.  We’d reached the last major climb, and the steepest one.  I was feeling spry and decided to give it my best go just cause.  Kristin did us a proud one and passed one of the girls from the Boise team for herself and with a cheer of encouragement from being back amongst our start group.  We screamed off the top finding ourselves quickly cooled off by the wind that blew us right back to our familiar training grounds of Highway 89 and its nonsensical motorists.  Different state, same highway, same rumble strips, same drivers.

We were suffering through a cross wind.  The shoulder has a serious rumble strip just inside of the white line leaving little room for error in this tiny window of space.  We were mostly alone, and the ones and twos around us couldn’t seem to organize and work together.  For a few miles we tried to rotate through the wind but never could find much of a sweet spot.  Then on our left came the train.  It was hard to pick out the otherwise distinct sound due to the traffic and wind noises, but the roll of the peloton was upon us.  And not just any peloton, it was our group from the start.  Ol’ Lactic Acid.  We enthusiastically jumped on.  This group was smooth.  Each of them good cyclists as individuals, but they rode together....a lot.  The miles flew by almost as fast as the riders who were grinding out this unforgiving stretch on their own.  This was what hooked me on the notion of road riding all those years ago, and to find it on this day for even the moment was a rejuvenating thrill.  The cool thing was the group knew we had latched on; they didn’t mind.  They were cordial and friendly; wait, roadies can be cordial and friendly?  The didn’t ask us to pull, hell, they were barely even rotating amongst themselves, and not that we could have.  I glanced over at the the computer of the rider next to me: 23 mph.  Oh, so that’s how you finish this ride.  I’d forgotten what it felt like to go that fast.  It feels effortless if you get the pack thing.

We stayed with the Lactics through the next rest stop and they invited us along for the following, despite some hardships even hanging on.  When the took a break we opted to continue, and at this point we knew we’d be on our own to the finish with 50 miles to go.  We felt confident that our starting groups generosity had granted us a shot to finish but we knew we couldn’t just hang on and feel like we earned it....and really we knew we couldn’t just hang on, they were out-pedaling us and we were feeling the distance.  With 50 just miles to go the pee breaks seemed to come so frequently, and every stop made it that much harder to start again.  The journey from bike seat to plastic bathroom got more and more painful.  Walking had become an aching labor.  Re-mounting the bike seemed like starting an engine in the cold with a next to dead battery.  I’d settle in, but the inconvenience of this frequency caused me to slow my liquid intake.  We got about 20 beautiful miles from Alpine Junction to Hoback Junction along the Snake River, where Kristin’s Dad, a 25 year veteran of LOTOJA, says you can “feel the pull of the Tetons.”  Personally, I felt the pull of the Snake, as we were riding upstream, and I would have rather been swimming.

From Hoback, things just got miserable.  I was nearing the end of my will.  Kristin took over motivational operations, but I was increasingly in a bad way.  I didn’t want to drink, because getting off the bike was getting too painful.  We were down to foods that just sounded bad.  There was no brain override.  Caloric deficit had taken over.  Still pedaling though.  No one mentions the little rollers leading up to and through the town of Jackson.  They seem like mountains for the first time all day.  I’m sunk.  We keep pedaling as the sun sets over Jackson.  The bike paths around the west side of town are a welcome break from the highway.  Wanting none more than for this day to be over at least I can be distracted for a minute by these quiet, narrow paths, with deer grazing in adjacent fields rather than focusing on my hunger and that little space to the right of that thin white line separating me from paralysis or death.  It ends all too soon and we’re back on the highway pedaling frantically into the dusk, feeling that we should be there by now.  Somehow we both put all the demons aside and pedal like we mean it.  The miles just keep going by, but how?  We should be there by now.  Its only getting darker.  Sometime between the dusk and the end of the show we finish the ride, hands clasped in honor of the team effort that was Fun-Hater Summer.  And it was a team effort, we worked together at times, but both had our moments of pulling for the other.  All 207 miles in just shy of 12 hours rolling time giving us just over an hour for pee breaks and cold food.  A few riders came in behind us, but not many.  All those people we passed either passed us back or did not finish.  I collapsed by a fence.  Kristin coridally greeted her family who had supported us all day driving about from stop to stop and pushing us onward.  I couldn’t speak, nor could I walk.  I had to crutch on my bike just to stand.  What a mess.